I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.
Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.
As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.
Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.
My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.
So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”
Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:
He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.
How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?